• October 22, 2014

Four-legged therapists help soldiers relieve stress

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Posted: Wednesday, November 2, 2011 12:00 pm

By Colleen Flaherty

Fort Hood Herald

Annie, Ranger and nine other volunteer therapists arrived promptly for their appointment at Fort Hood's Warrior Transition Brigade Thursday.

After relieving themselves in the courtyard, they entered the unit's Occupational Therapy center unassumingly and waited for soldiers to approach them.

"Hello, Annie!" said Sgt. Monica Hickmott, rubbing the fluffy white poodle's ears and head as her entire back end wagged.

At Hickmott's command, "Give me five," Annie lifted her paw - and her orange-painted nails - to meet the solider's outstretched hand.

This was Hickmott's third time meeting the dog, a member of the Austin-based Divine Canines animal-assisted therapy organization. About 10 dogs visit wounded warriors completing stress management classes once a month to supplement other traditional and alternative therapies they regularly receive.

Brigade occupational therapist Randy Thomas initiated the therapy dog program two years ago. Spending time with dogs can help soldiers relieve stress and "we noticed that our more aloof soldiers more readily responded to dogs than to therapists." The program has become one of the brigade's most popular, he added.

Thomas attributed the therapeutic powers of the pooch to history. "There's a longtime bond between humans and dogs," he said. "It's been going on for thousands of years."

Hickmott, 42, said she bonded with Annie immediately. "They kind of pick you," she said of the therapy dogs she's drawn to. "They're just like my horses. I have to ask my horses the right questions, and they'll let you know the answer."

Annie's owner, 65-year-old public relations specialist Pam Baggett of Austin, agreed. "She spotted you from here to the wall over there," Baggett told Hickmott, pointing. "You two were made for each other."

Baggett said she rescued 5-year-old Annie from a puppy mill and was encouraged to help her become a therapy dog by a trainer. The dog and owner have been part of Divine Canines, which visits hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other places across Central Texas, for three years. The nonprofit began in 2004 and has 80 canine members who must meet a series of training requirements before they can begin visits.

Organization trainer Paul Mann, who brought his own German shorthaired pointer, Farmer, to the session, said Fort Hood is a popular destination for Divine Canines owners. "This is a huge site for our volunteers," he said. "They love it."

Hickmott, a lifelong animal lover with four dogs, a cat and four horses, entered the Warrior Transition Brigade several months ago, following an injury in a non-combat-related incident during a deployment to Iraq in 2009.

She said monthly canine therapy "calms me. It brings my stress level down." Dogs love unconditionally and can be easier to communicate with than people, she added.

Not all soldiers who enjoyed the dogs' visit were experienced pet owners, however.

Staff Sgt. Herbert Brown, who entered the Warrior Transition Brigade in July after experiencing pulmonary edema during a deployment to Afghanistan with the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, said he'd spent little time with dogs in his life. But he still spent most his first Divine Canines visit with Ranger, a 4-year-old black Labrador retriever.

"Going through this stress management class, this helps," Brown, 47, said of petting Ranger. "It's a big help, actually, just getting you away from the everyday routine."

The dog's owner, Pat Matthews, 68, said Brown had a way with animals.

"He's very skilled with dogs," she said. "(Ranger) calmed right down."

Matthews lives in Round Mountain, near Johnson City. She said she didn't mind making the trip to visit soldiers at Fort Hood "because these men and women give so much, and it's nice to give something back. It may sound syrupy, but I think that's how everybody feels."

For more information on Divine Canines, go to www.divinecanines.org.

Contact Colleen Flaherty at colleenf@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7559.

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